Can a Disorganized Attachment Style Be Overcome?

Disorganized attachment styleNo individual needs to be defined by the actions or behavior of their parents.

However, the attachment strategies we form early in our lives for dealing with our parents and caregivers can significantly shape how we relate to ourselves, others, and our environments (Levy & Orlans, 2014).

Infants who continuously experience fear and trauma from their parents may develop a disorganized attachment, marked by unpredictable behavior and emotional responses, including withdrawal, anxiety, anger, and defiance (Marrone, 2014).

This article explores the nature and origin of disorganized attachment, along with strategies to support children and adults in building more helpful and healthy connections.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients build healthy, life-enriching relationships.

Understanding Disorganized Attachment & Its Causes

Over the last few decades, increasing research and therapeutic attention has turned toward adult attachment styles formed in childhood and how they impact our lives and relationships (Levy & Orlans, 2014).

We can think of attachment styles as organized strategies required to adapt to different (often unhealthy and unpredictable) emotional responses received from attachment figures, including mothers, fathers, and other caregivers (Marrone, 2014).

Early research described three such patterns of attachment for infants in connection with their mother or other significant parental figures (Marrone, 2014; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2016):

  • Secure attachment: a seemingly effortless, well-adjusted, and warm relationship
  • Insecure-avoidant attachment: a relative disinterest in their parents and their whereabouts
  • Insecure-ambivalent attachment: an inconsistent and potentially anxious connection to them

However, a Berkeley research team subsequently found a fourth attachment style they described as disorganized-disoriented (Marrone, 2014).

“Infants who fall into this category react to reunion with their mother in a confused and disorganized way” (Marrone, 2014, p. 62).

The evidence they accumulated suggests such behavior may result from the children experiencing fear through direct or indirect abuse.

In response to insensitive (possibly abusive) parenting, the responsiveness and behavior of the child within the infant–caregiver context are not coherent; they become disorganized (Beeney et al., 2017).

The child often exhibits “contradictory approach/withdrawal behaviors, confusion, and/or disorientation and fear regarding their parent” (Beeney et al., 2017, p. 3).

Up to 80% of families in high-risk situations create disorganized/disoriented attachment patterns in their children, frequently stemming from (Levy & Orlans, 2014):

  • Poverty
  • Substance abuse
  • Abuse and neglect
  • Domestic violence
  • History of maltreatment in parents’ childhood
  • Depression
  • Other psychological disorders in parents

The result is that hundreds of thousands of children enter the welfare system in the United States (and beyond) each year in need of substantial support (Levy & Orlans, 2014).

Children with disorganized attachment (often resulting from severe maltreatment) frequently end up with unresolved issues, leading to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting in adolescents and adults unable to tolerate emotional closeness (Levy & Orlans, 2014).

“Children with disorganized attachment histories are at greater risk of developing emotional and behavioral problems than other children whose risk factor is insecure, non-disorganized attachment” (Marrone, 2014, p. 172).

Disorganized attachment style - Kim Sage

Kim Sage offers several videos on attachment style. This discussion is particularly helpful for better understanding the disorganized attachment style, its impacts, and potential treatment.

11 Signs of Disorganized Attachment in Children & Adults

Children identified by psychologists as disorganized do not display a coherent strategy for dealing with their parents or caregivers. The same is true for adults in intimate relationships (Beeney et al., 2017).

Though triggers, actions, and emotional responses in children with a disorganized attachment style can be inconsistent and confusing, the following list includes many of the telltale indicators or behaviors exhibited when dealing with their caregivers (Beeney et al., 2017; Marrone, 2014):

  1. Being unpredictable and contradictory, for example, rapidly switching from approach to withdrawal
  2. Confusion and disorientation in their interactions
  3. Displaying fear and avoidance, often in response to unresolved trauma or loss
  4. Attempting to control — or parent — their caregivers, guiding them, or providing emotional support
  5. Being defiant or humiliating toward them
  6. Showing anger and aggression without apparent triggers
  7. Freezing out (even apparently falling asleep) or displaying other inhibited activity with caregivers that is not present when interacting with strangers or other family members

Research continues to examine and understand the cause and effect of attachment disorganization in children, adolescents, and adults in healthy and clinical populations.

Psychologists typically identify an “unresolved state of mind with respect to loss or trauma,” suggesting a lack of integration (of either or both) into consciousness (Beeney et al., 2017, p. 3).

Counselors working with adults may observe the following indicators of disorganized attachment (Beeney et al., 2017; Marrone, 2014):

  1. Rapid and fluctuating mental states, particularly related to themselves and others
  2. Intense and often contradictory behaviors; expressing extreme emotions such as anger without warning
  3. Unclear boundaries between the self and others, leading to confusion, difficulties in forming a coherent identity, and relationship challenges
  4. Limited ability to understand the feelings of themselves and others

However, while these signs can indicate disorganized attachment in children and adults, they are also found in other attachment styles and mental health conditions, so care must be taken regarding diagnosis and treatment (Beeney et al., 2017).

Our article discussing attachment style questionnaires and tests can be helpful when seeking ways to assess clients.

Download 3 Free Positive Relationships Exercises (PDF)

These detailed, science-based exercises will equip you or your clients to build healthy, life-enriching relationships.

How This Attachment Style Affects Relationships

Infants exhibiting a disorganized attachment style have been observed to display fear, conflict, apprehension, and disorientation toward parents, particularly when they are stressed by separation and reunion (Rokach & Clayton, 2023).

Therefore, it is no surprise that such an attachment style in relationships can significantly impact behavior with parents in children, adolescents, and later in life as adults.

The disorganized attachment style can even lead to individuals challenging and humiliating parents, avoiding intimacy, and potentially engaging in self-injury (Rokach & Clayton, 2023).

Due to potential conflict with those close to them, children and adults may find it easier to form relationships with strangers than with loved ones (Rokach & Clayton, 2023).

Other behavioral consequences for disorganized children may include struggling to form and maintain relationships, including displaying hostility, aggression, and delinquency.

In later life, the disorganized style can wreak havoc on intimate relationships, where inconsistent and erratic behavior, fear, and distrust can be challenging for the other individual.

The anxious adult may fear their partner will leave them, so they attempt to pull them too close to ensure their needs are met or, alternatively, draw back or push them away to avoid rejection.

On the other hand, if they feel their needs are threatened, they may respond with aggression or freeze the other person out to protect themselves (Rokach & Clayton, 2023).

3 Ways to Overcome a Disorganized Attachment Style

Overcome disorganized attachmentTherapy is a valuable process for clients wishing to manage or overcome a disorganized attachment style.

The following approaches and activities are helpful and appear successful (Levy & Orlans, 2014; Shemmings & Shemmings, 2014):

Attend therapy with an effective and appropriate corrective attachment therapist

Therapy can be supportive of overcoming a disorganized attachment style. As such, the therapeutic alliance is a vital aspect of the process and is helped by engaging with a therapist who adopts several essential characteristics, including (Levy & Orlans, 2014):

  • Empathy and compassion
  • Patience and emotional nonreactivity
  • Confidence
  • Sensitivity to cultural backgrounds and needs
  • Able to deal with resistance flexibly and creatively
  • Hope and optimism
  • Authentic sense of humor, without sarcasm or ridicule

Fake it until you make it: Act secure until you become secure

Acting as though they have adopted a secure attachment style can help the client reprogram their brain circuitry to move away from an avoidant or disorganized attachment style (Shemmings & Shemmings, 2014).

The act–become model encourages clients with insecure or disorganized attachments to observe individuals they admire to see how they react more securely.

According to social learning theory, observation and subsequent modeling can lead to learning that the client can try out later. The client aims to emulate secure and helpful behavior that supports the building and maintaining of relationships identified in those they admire (Shemmings & Shemmings, 2014).

Revisiting past experiences to transform negative working models

Identifying the clients’ core beliefs is vital to the therapeutic process, as they have most likely become self-fulfilling prophecies leading to learned helplessness (Levy & Orlans, 2014).

The therapist works with the client to revisit memories of loss, pain, and fear from early childhood while exploring and unpicking negative beliefs that combine to form their negative working model, including (Levy & Orlans, 2014):

  • Child’s (or adult’s) perception of events
  • Emotional and somatic (bodily) reactions
  • Associated imagery and memory
  • Responses of significant others.

Working through their story with an empathetic therapist helps clients form a meaningful connection and (through repetition) desensitizes the emotional charge of prior events (Levy & Orlans, 2014).

The therapist’s acceptance and validation further reduce the associated guilt.

The therapist subsequently works with the client to develop more secure attachments through the following (Levy & Orlans, 2014):

  • Constructing new interpretations
  • Dealing effectively with the emotions involved
  • Learning prosocial coping skills
  • Creating mastery over prior trauma and loss
  • Developing a positive sense of self
  • Enhancing self-regulation
  • Addressing family systems issues

Transforming models is a complex process requiring the skills of experienced and well-trained therapists. Ultimately, it will involve several iterations of telling and retelling the stories within a solid therapeutic alliance to challenge and replace the negative working model and create more helpful and healthy attachment styles (Levy & Orlans, 2014).

4 Worksheets for Supporting Your Clients

Therapeutic exercises are a great way of identifying, focusing on, and understanding attachment styles and building and maintaining strong connections.

The following attachment style worksheets are helpful for use with clients:

  • Anxious Attachment Patterns
    Digging deeper into uncomfortable experiences can help clients identify and understand anxious attachment patterns.

In this exercise, the client reflects on several vital questions, including:

What was the trigger that made you feel upset or emotional?

What was the worst part of the incident?

Why did the incident have such a profound effect on you?

How has that incident, and others like it, impacted your current relationship?

  • Recognizing Our Need for Safety and Security
    We all have a psychological need to feel safe, secure, and important in our lives. Feelings of security may be missing from a disorganized attachment style, yet they are crucial for relationship collaboration and intimacy (Chen, 2019).

Use this exercise with your clients to help them better understand what they need to support feelings of safety. Ask them to reflect on the following:

What could you do to help prevent yourself from getting stressed?

What could your partner do to help prevent you from getting stressed?

What could you do to calm yourself down once you are stressed?

What can you do to reassure yourself of the relationship connection you have?

What things could your partner do to reassure you of the relationship connection you have?

  • Shifting Codependency Patterns
    Codependency can lead to unhealthy emotions in your clients’ relationships. Through contrasting codependency thoughts and behavior patterns with healthier ones, they can learn to take action to recover from codependency.

Clients can use this exercise to reflect on how codependent patterns impact relationships.

The client reviews codependent patterns of:

    • Denial
    • Low self-esteem
    • Compliance
    • Avoidance
    • Control

With practice, they will become more able to change to more adaptive behaviors and tendencies.

  • Understanding Your Avoiders and Triggers
    Clients with a disorganized attachment style may avoid forming emotionally solid bonds or engaging in uncomfortable situations.

This worksheet helps clients identify which anxiety triggers lead to avoidance and require additional focus in therapy.

Ask the client to:

    • List five triggers for their anxiety.

And then consider:

    • Am I avoiding any of these triggers because of my anxiety?
    • Are there occasions when I experience the triggers and react in ways I don’t want?

The client then reflects on how their behavior changes following the trigger and what sensations they experience.

The exercise provides an opportunity to work on these triggers and reduce their impact.

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Many resources are available for therapists working with individuals and groups to move toward more secure attachment styles.

Our free resources include:

  • Taking Stock of Avoidance
    Avoidant strategies can prevent us from being who we really are, especially in relationships.

The following questions help the client understand when they are being avoidant and the impact it is having:

What emotions are you experiencing when you are most stressed or likely to avoid a situation?
What are you looking for or need when you are most stressed or likely to avoid a situation?
What is happening when you are most stressed or likely to avoid a situation?

  • Conquering Avoidant Tendencies
    Avoidance is only ever a short-term solution to problems and situations that scare us.

In this exercise, we score what is causing the client distress and identify more healthy coping mechanisms.

What are you attempting to avoid?
What triggers are causing you distress? Rank them.
Identify action steps for how you might confront each trigger.
Identify appropriate coping mechanisms.

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below.

  • Identifying False Beliefs About Emotions

Many of our beliefs about emotions are incorrect. This exercise addresses clients’ basic and often unconscious assumptions about how they feel.

Try out the following three steps:

    • Step one – Choose a difficult emotion, perhaps related to an emotional state you are struggling with.
    • Step two – Read through the list of potentially false core beliefs supplied.
    • Step three – Explore the consequences of holding each belief.
  • The Acceptance or Avoidance Route

To flourish in our lives requires us to live in line with our values. Fear sometimes gets in the way.

Review the worksheet with the client to help them understand the difference between avoidance and acceptance-based coping.

In doing so, the client will learn the difference between taking and not taking the action based on fear.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others build healthy relationships, check out this collection of 17 validated positive relationships tools for practitioners. Use them to help others form healthier, more nurturing, and life-enriching relationships.

A Take-Home Message

Our attachment styles, formed in the crucial early years, can deeply imprint on us, shaping our lives in profound ways.

The disorganized attachment style manifests in children’s chaotic or disorganized responses to their parents. They may appear confused and disoriented in their interactions, rapidly switching between approach and withdrawal, or being defiant, angry, or freezing them out.

Such an attachment style is often formed in response to maltreatment, unresolved issues, and fear, leaving the child, adolescent, and adult finding it challenging to tolerate emotional closeness and develop and maintain intimate relationships.

Treatment often involves relationship therapy. With an appropriate counselor, the client can learn to model behaviors associated with a secure attachment style, such as intimacy, trust, and affection.

Therefore, mental health professionals must be aware of attachment styles and their impact on relationships throughout clients’ lives.

With appropriate support, clients can be helped by revisiting past experiences to identify, understand, and transform negative working models, which preserve and prolong the disorganized attachment style, into more secure ones.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.

  • Beeney, J. E., Wright, A. G. C., Stepp, S. D., Hallquist, M. N., Lazarus, S. A., Beeney, J. R. S., Scott, L. N., & Pilkonis, P. A. (2017). Disorganized attachment and personality functioning in adults: A latent class analysis. Personality Disorders, 8(3), 206–216.
  • Chen, A. (2019). The attachment theory workbook: Powerful tools to promote understanding, increase stability & build lasting relationships. Althea Press.
  • Levy, T. M., & Orlans, M. (2014). Attachment, trauma, and healing: Understanding and treating attachment disorder in children, families and adults. Jessica Kingsley.
  • Marrone, M. (2014). Attachment and interaction: From Bowlby to current clinical theory and practice. Jessica Kingsley.
  • Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2016). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. Guilford Press.
  • Rokach, A, & Clayton, S. (2023). Adverse childhood experiences and their life-long impact. Academic Press.
  • Shemmings, D., & Shemmings, Y. (Eds.). (2014). Working with families and disorganized attachment: An evidence-based model for understanding, assessment and support. Jessica Kingsley.

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